Curatorial Projects > By-product Becomes Product (2013)

By-product Becomes Product

A group exhibition featuring work by Russell Baldon, Julia Goodman, Barbara Holmes, Christine Lee, Scott Oliver, and Imin Yeh in collaboration with U.S. Department of Agriculture Forest Products Laboratory Research Engineer John F. Hunt

February 6 – March 30, 2013
Intersection for the Arts
San Francisco, CA

Over the past couple of years, artist Christine Lee has been working with the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Forest Products Laboratory (FPL) in Madison, WI to explore alternative approaches to material use and investigate material choices that could establish a healthier creative practice. Concerned about the health effects of working with commonly available composite wood panels such as medium density fiberboard (MDF), particle board, and certain plywoods, she worked collaboratively with FPL Research Engineer John F. Hunt to create boards made from sawdust and recycled paper pulp fibers that contain no adhesives or toxic compounds and are biodegradable and recyclable.

The genesis for this project came when Lee was a Resident Artist at the University of Wisconsin-Madison Art Department’s Wood Program in 2010. Already concerned about the health effects of working with commonly available composite wood panels, Lee wanted to explore alternative approaches to material use and investigate material choices that could establish a healthier creative practice during her residency. Formaldehyde resins and glues are commonly used to bind together both plywood and MDF, and testing has consistently revealed that these wood boards emit urea-formaldehyde and other volatile organic compounds (VOCs) for months after manufacture, let alone the harmful, residual particles created from cutting the boards. The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency classified urea-formaldehyde as a “probable human carcinogen” as early as 1987.

During her residency, Lee worked with a supply of excess, post-industrial wood donated from a local millwork company. Being accountable for even more waste, Lee collected the sawdust she generated and worked with USDA FPL Research Engineer John F. Hunt to create test panels with the sawdust supply, in essence producing usable material out of typically discarded by-product. Working at the USDA FPL since 1979, Hunt has been committed to discovering innovative ways to utilize wood waste with cutting-edge technology and manufacturing methods. Building upon Hunt’s extensive research knowledge on molded fiber products and recycling paper into structural products, Lee and Hunt used various forming processes to create sawdust composite boards exhibiting properties similar to current manufactured wood boards such as MDF. These new boards, however, do not contain added adhesives, are entirely biodegradable and recyclable, and do not emit urea-formaldehyde or other VOCs. Given that The Formaldehyde Standards for Composite Wood Products Act was passed by Congress and signed into law by President Obama last year to regulate formaldehyde omissions, this project is both timely and relevant to larger social concerns. Lee and Hunt are currently working with a patent advisor to obtain a provisional patent on their process.

Influenced by the prevalent theories and practices of materials reclamation, resource conservation, and recycling in contemporary art, Lee is proposing an innovative solution to working with composite wood boards that are free of toxic adhesives and binders, effectively utilizing excess waste, offering a safer alternative to readily available plywood and medium density fiberboard (MDF), and creating value to a common, abundant by-product for use by a range of artistic and industrial disciplines. We have given these boards to five artists who use wood as their primary material to create new work for this exhibition. Showcasing a broad range of conceptual and aesthetic styles, demonstrating diversity of construction and fabrication techniques, and blurring boundaries between fine art, craft, industrial design, and interactive installation, this project embodies Intersection’s commitment to supporting innovative thought that facilitates positive change.

- Kevin B. Chen